The early morning scene was reminiscent of many others that I had experienced in Taiwan; the streets were already teeming with scooter activity, merchants were busy shutting down their businesses from the previous night and I was already engulfed in a mixture of humidity, pollution and energy. It was six am and I had already been exploring the city streets for half an hour. With the exploration came the idea that I had a direction that I was going to loosely follow, but no real destination in mind. By the time the sun had reached across the horizon and began to actually radiate its heat, it was time for a much needed break. I took refuge on one side of the Kaohsiung harbor underneath a sprawling tree with a hundred foot ship to my left and an abandon building to my right. Behind me was an eighty-five story skyscraper that towered over the rest of the city and was the only recognizable landmark in a city covered in an early morning haze. Wanting to get an early start on my day and not get distracted by anything, I had foregone any food or liquid. As I sat in the bush feeling the effects of the previous night a local group of Taiwanese gangsters approached me clearly in a good mood because of an early morning buzz. They looked rather confused to see a foreigner in such a dilapidated part of town and this early in the morning. To break the ice, I motioned to one gentleman’s hand that contained a sack of a local opiate called “beetle nut”. I have found the Taiwanese are always amused and excited when a foreigner pops one of the leaf covered nuts into their mouths. The part that they find most amusing is when they are able to witness the reaction to the potent drug hit the unsuspecting person for the first time. In the past I have used beetle nut as an excellent way to get closer to the people I photograph and build relationships with many blue collared workers. After consuming three or four of the local delicacy, I was part of the gang. Offers of cigarettes, women and booze came from the locals who were absolutely having the day of their lives. The wife of the leader of the gang was there and I was able to capture a picture of her in one of the gang’s scooter mirrors (picture 1). In the photo she is laughing along with the rest of them because I had just taken a giant gulp out of a water bottle that I thought was of course water, but in it actually was a local moonshine. After everyone had a good laugh at the foreigner with the big nose, I wasn’t going to be the guy who walks away from such hospitality. I stayed with my new found friends for a few more gulps of moonshine and a pack of beetle nut. After we had consumed both of the local concoctions, my euphoric day had a rude interruption. One of the men began yelling at the top of the lungs the only English words he knew; “Police! Police!” Now the effects of an opiate and moonshine breakfast dashed into my stomach as well as my head. The two police officers quickly rushed over to the scene. The man who had beckoned them casually displayed a smile with a little of the red juice beetle nut slowly seeping through his teeth and onto his chin, classy (Picture 2). A conversation ensued between the gangsters and the police with both sides revealing few smiles at each other. The police turned to me and looked directly at the water bottle I was holding, shit, my stomach sank at the possibilities that could happen. The one police officer began to speak English; he told me that the gangsters thought that I might want to speak to them knowing that the police spoke English. I should have known nothing would come of this and my suspicions of a possible punishment were quickly dashed when one of the officers reached into the bag and consumed two pieces of beetle nut himself.
The next thing I know, I am in the police boat speeding across the harbor with the two police officers who are answering a distress call (Picture 3) We arrived at the police station to find that the police had apprehended two local suspects know for illegal fishing in the harbor. They suspects sat there as they paraded me into the station, with their fellow officers and the police chief standing to greet me. I had no clue what was going on. As we ascended up the police station stairs that must have been built in the sixties, the stench of urine and rotting fish began to penetrate my nostrils. They sat me down on a bench and told me to remain there. I sat as patiently as I could, which meant that I was constantly fidgeting with everything around my, from the keys on the officers desk to the empty gun holster that was adjacent to me. After a twenty minute wait I was escorted down that same hallway, to my relieve the urine and rotten fish smell was gone, we walked to the end of the hall and the officer slowly pushed the door open to reveal the entire police force waiting there for me to join them for lunch.
After a hearty lunch consisting of steamed vegetables, various unrecognizable cuts of meat, egg and seaweed soup, I bid my gracious hosts farewell. As I left the station, I had a sense gratefulness towards the entire Taiwanese population as well as this feeling that, I’m down with the police, so I can venture wherever I wanted and I wouldn’t be bothered. Fast forward twenty minutes and a labyrinth of back alleys, I came to a dead end in the middle of what looked to be a spare parts yard for giant cargo ships. I was welcomed by two Taiwanese street animals that were bigger than the dog from the movie The Sandlot. They barked ferociously as I cautiously peaked around the various parts scattered in the yard. I slowly crept through the property, not being able to see above or beyond any of the giant pieces of metal that consumed the property. Suddenly, I was startled to discover four men who had a look on their face like I was an ex wife joining them for lunch. As I approached the men said nothing, but gave me some of the dirtiest looks I have ever received in any of my travels. The day was already over forty degrees with the humidity, but as soon as my eyes made contact, I quickly began to feel my heart race and the sweat seep through my already see through shirt. The closer I got, the more I was able to decipher that the men were gambling, which is illegal in Taiwan. With my camera around my neck, I reached into my pocket to give the men the remainder of the beetle nut that I hadn’t eaten from the morning’s breakfast. Again, the men’s faces turned from scowls to utter disbelief. I can only image what they thought, why was I here? What the hell did I want? And most importantly, what was I doing with beetle nut? I proceeded to hand over the beetle nut to the men who grabbed it like a goat rips the treats out of a Childs hand at a petting zoo. While their attention was on the game and their mouths were occupied with the opiate, I snapped a few photos (Pictures 4, 5, 6), before they turned to me and gave me the motion that you would give to a fly that interrupted your afternoon nap. I knew I shouldn’t push my luck so I ventured back out of the scrap yard and toward the direction of home.
The majority of the walk/ferry ride home proved to yield few photos. I was able to regain some much needed energy through a drink that consisted of green tea and honey. Having walked the majority of the day, I was completely desperate for something other than moonshine. The mixture provided me with a little swagger in my step and a renewed sense of enthusiasm towards my adventure. I also decided to reload on my dwindling supply of beetle nut thinking to myself that it had helped me this much today, so I picked up a pack, popped two and kept on trekking to the next intersection. Thanks to the beetle nut I was able to suppress my hunger even with such tempting delights as fried squid, and stinky tofu being hawked right in front of me. I boarded a ferry that would take me back to the city of Kaohsiung.
As the ferry made its way into the Kaohsiung port, I felt a cool breeze from the open waters and realized that the sun was setting. I wanted to still capture some images while the sun sprayed its last rays across the city streets. Wandering down various back alleys and passed random fires (picture 7), I came to a main street, which was usually occupied with commuters on their journey home from work. Today it was shut down due to a wedding. When the Taiwanese do a wedding, that do it properly, the entire city street gets shut down, massive amounts of friends and family attend to celebrate, and the bride and groom come to each table to do a shot with each of the guests. When I entered the venue, I was engulfed by a colorful tent with red carpet down the middle and tables on either side (Picture 8), the people quickly asked what I was doing and if I wanted to help with the preparations. Before I could answer a knife was placed into my one hand and smiles directed me to what I should be doing (Pictures 9 & 10). With a camera in one hand and a knife in the other, I began to dice the pale meat like a young Bobby Flay. I asked when the bride and groom would be making their appearance and I was told that it wouldn’t be for a couple of hours. My empty stomach and exhausted legs indicated that it was to time to continue my urban exploration through the neon-lit streets. My camera was quickly placed into my backpack and swapped for a can of spray paint and a whole other adventure started.